Back to top

Ending Homelessness in Finland

Finnish Homelessness

Connor Friesen interviews Juha Kaakinen

Finland has in recent years successfully reduced long-term homelessness. The Finnish experience strongly suggests that ending homelessness is possible. Through a combination of revised support services for long-term homeless people, intensified efforts to influence the policy and funding context of homelessness, and an innovative ‘housing first’ approach, the National Programme to Reduce Long-Term Homelessness has achieved strong results.

Juha Kaakinen is the Programme Leader of the National Programme to Reduce Long-term Homelessness in Finland.

CF: Could you tell us a bit about the situation of homeless people in Finland before the National Programme to Reduce Long-term Homelessness began seeing positive results?

JK: Before this latest Reduction programme, which started in 2008, several other programmes had been running, with quite promising results; in 20 years starting from 1987  homelessness  had been reduced from 20 000 to about 8000 people. These statistics are not completely comparable between European countries—we have in use a wide definition of homelessness, including homeless people staying temporarily with friends or relatives, and over 65 % of all our homeless people belong to this group. Homelessness in Finland is very much concentrated in the Helsinki Metropolitan area where over 50  % of all homeless people live and  in 6-7 other bigger cities.

In 2007 we realized that the progress of reducing homelessness had stagnated and there was an imminent risk of homelessness rapidly increasing. When we evaluated the former programmes we realized that there was a group of homeless people who seemed to be excluded from the measures we had been using. This was the group of long-term homeless people, the most vulnerable group with serious health and social problems and in need of intensive support.

In a way we had managed to get housing for those homeless people whose only problem was the lack of suitable dwelling, but to radically reduce and end homelessness we needed to do something completely differently. So we started to think what should be done to get proper housing and support for this most vulnerable group, to get them out from the streets , hostels and institutions.

CF: Your work has been extremely successful. Your programme has created 1600 dwellings and supported housing units, well beyond your initial target. You have created dwellings for young people in need of targeted support. You have created an advisory support service to help the recently homeless avoid eviction. All of this has been achieved on budget and, what’s more, you have empirically proven, through an evaluation conducted by the Tampere University of Technology, that your programme generates a savings for government in that service users draw less heavily on publicly funded social services and health services. The notion that homelessness is a problem that can be definitively solved represents a change in paradigm. Do you think this is helpful? Will this galvanize other organizations working to allay homelessness?

JK: To be precise, the number of dwellings for young people is 766 .  But these figures are only a part of the story. It is true that the programme has been in many respects successful. I think that the main reason for this is a wide partnership of state and local authorities and NGOs both locally and nationally based on a strong political consensus on this matter. It was a Government’s decision of principle in 2008 to halve long-term homelessness which started this implementation programme. We have been very pragmatic in our approach, we have made very concrete implementation plans including description of responsibilities and financing between all partners involved. Now we are preparing a continuation of the programme for the new government with the aim of completely ending long-term homelessness by 2015.

In a few years time we have witnessed a remarkable change in peoples’ way of thinking about homelessness. 

In a few years time we have witnessed a remarkable change in peoples’ way of thinking about homelessness. We have as partners many organizations who have a long history in working with homeless people. Their flexibility and innovativeness and willingness to think and act differently amazes me over and over again.  There seems to be a completely new atmosphere: people realize that we are very serious and determined on this matter, we have a common goal, it’s certainly difficult but we can manage and we will do it.

I think there are so strong ethical, moral, political and even economic grounds to end homelessness that there can’t be any other goals for homelessness policy. The time of managing homelessness is definitely over, it is time to end homelessness. If you say that we have now such a bad economy that we can’t afford to end homelessness I will argue just the opposite: when we have such a bad economy we simply can’t afford not to end homelessness.

CF: at the European Consensus Conference on Homelessness, you mentioned that the “Housing First” model for addressing homelessness played a large part in the success of your work. Could you describe the model and tell us a bit more about how this approach represents a social innovation in your area of work?

JK: Actually when we wrote our programme we were quite unaware that there already was a Housing first concept developed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in New York  with a history starting from the 1990’s. We just had the idea that we much change completely our way of thinking. The prevalent idea in homelessness services had been that you gradually move from lower levels of housing finally to your own flat when you have sorted out your problems and you are considered  capable to live on your own, the  so called staircase –model. Well, it’s a long and winding road for many homeless people.

When we wrote our programme we were quite unaware that there already was a Housing first concept developed by Dr. Sam Tsemberis in New York

So we had a group of four Wise men who came to the conclusion that first you must get a proper home, a flat of your own which guarantees your privacy, to be able to deal with your problems with all the help professionals can give you.  So in our thinking a dwelling with your own tenancy agreement, preferably a permanent contract, not temporary or second-hand, is the starting point. This is something we have presumed from all actors who have opened new supported housing units with the financing of this programme.

Our programme has been implemented in 10 major cities, in cities which have most of the homeless people.  Every city has an implementation plan of its own.  These plans have timetables for all projects with financing and other responsibilities.

Housing can be arranged either in scattered housing or in single-house units, so called supported housing units, the biggest supported housing unit has 125 independent flats for former homeless people. We have a long history of scattered housing, municipalities have dwellings for homeless people in their social housing stock and Y-Foundation, one of our key national actors in the homelessness sector, has acquired from the private housing market over 6000 flats for homeless people starting from 1980’s.

So scattered housing has been the prevalent solution but this new reduction programme has realized more single-house units. These units are something we have been missing in our services. They make possible more intensive support for those homeless people who need it and especially in Helsinki these units have replaced hostels. Actually there are several hostels that have been converted into supported housing units.

Probably the most radical part of our programme is this closing of shelters and hostels and replacing them with supported single house units. We think that hostels create a certain culture of homelessness; they don’t allow the privacy which is necessary for recovery and rehabilitation. In Helsinki there were over 600 bed-places in hostels when our programme started, now the number of bed-places is less than 200.

Either in scattered housing or in centralized singe-house units, or both, housing succeeds if you have enough support  and you treat homeless people with dignity and respect. Probably the main reason for our success is that we have been able to employ over 200 new support workers in the homelessness services in these new housing units. This has been made possible by a targeted state grant which covers 50 % of the personnel costs.

You could say that it’s a little bit paradoxical but with housing first policy the role of the social and health sector  is more essential than ever in providing the support.

CF: Has there been any resistance to the “Housing First” model in Finland?

JK: Resistance is quite a strong word, but critical discussions, long discussions with some partners, yes. Let me tell you one example: Salvation Army is a respected but also you could say a traditional organization.  Part of our programme was the closing of their hostel in Helsinki for 236 men and renovating the building for a supported housing unit for 80 men. There was a lot of resistance and doubts based both on ideological and financial grounds, the higher you went in their organization the stronger was the resistance.  But now a real breakthrough has happened: The hostel was closed in February and construction works of the new supported housing unit will start this year.  Salvation Army got also another supported housing unit for 119 men for their use. And now they are running in this unit one of the most progressive work rehabilitation programmes for former homeless men!  I think this would not have been possible only with discussions and persuasion, but luckily we had some very wise men and women in their organization who managed to convince their leaders.

Of course also an academic discussion (as always in Finland) has already started about the question: Is this really Housing first what we are doing? But that´s quite another story.

CF: As you mention, the Housing First model was pioneered in America.  How have you adapted the model, if at all, to fit in the Finish context? What advice would you give to other European countries who are interested in importing the Housing First model?

It’s quite amazing how rapidly this idea of Housing first is spreading across Europe. There are several interesting pilots in Nordic countries, in Netherlands, in France, in Portugal etc.  I think that as a basic philosophy you can import Housing first but as a trademark model not or at least you have to adjust it to your own context, differences in national contexts are so great.  Maybe it would be more correct to speak about housing led –models as some researchers have suggested.

It is a groundbreaking way of thinking and acting, a real change of paradigm

I think that Housing first is something different when you implement it on a small scale, experimenting with providing housing and services for10 to 100 homeless people, then you can be more rigorous with principles. But when you try to implement Housing first on a policy level, creating 1600 dwellings in four years, you certainly have to make compromises. As I see it you can’t just take and implement Housing first and then leave everything else intact. It is a groundbreaking way of thinking and acting, a real change of paradigm,  and for us the first implication was that you have to do something with hostels and shelters. How can you have a housing first –policy if you actually have a hostels first –policy?

Probably the main difference we have with the original Housing first –model is the role of supported housing units. We have for example in Helsinki over 2000 flats for homeless people in scattered housing. Providing adequate support in this magnitude is quite challenging.  In supported housing units it’s realistically possible to arrange multiprofessional support for those homeless people who need intensive support.  I think that it is as possible to integrate homeless people in the community in supported housing units as in scattered housing, but we certainly need more research on this issue.

A discussion about concepts and the real nature of housing first is certainly interesting but also sometimes a little academic. For most homeless people the names of our policies and models are quite irrelevant. What matters is what homeless people gain from our efforts at the end of the day, both literally and metaphorically speaking.

CF: What do you see as Social Innovation Europe’s role in supporting this innovation, and in replicating successful models across traditional boarders and boundaries?

JK: In the homelessness branch the proactive role of FEANTSA has been and is indispensable. Somehow they have succeeded in creating a real European “community of practice” by bringing together practitioners and field-workers from NGOs and public sector, researchers, NGO leaders, civil servants and politicians from both local and central governments and from the European Commission. But I‘m also very excited about SIE and think that SIE can bring much added value  by linking together old and new actors  and by creating new platforms  for people from different branches. We are not starting from point zero but sometimes you have to step out of your ”comfort zone” to find innovations and inspiring ideas to say nothing about inspiring people.  I may be a little bit old-fashioned but for me ICT can never completely replace meeting people face to face: laptops and mobiles don’t show emotions although they sometimes seem to be a little capricious.